Everyone’s favourite meth-laced drama drew to a cataclysmic close last week, and no one was more saddened to see it end than Chris Hassell of Ralph, the agency responsible for the show’s social media presence. Here he explains the chemistry behind Breaking Bad’s success.
In 2007 I’d only ever heard of Albuquerque when said after the words “hot dog” and “jumping frog”. I have now, along with Ralph’s creative directors Gregor Stevenson and Chris Stack, been to the New Mexico city twice; both times for a shoot with Bryan Cranston as Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned drug lord. We had no idea how big a claim to fame this would become.
Our brief was to promote season one and we had only seen the pilot, so the treatment for our concept, WaltsWisdom.com, was set during that episode. In it Walt had a camcorder into which he recorded a message for his family, so of course it made perfect sense that he’d use that same camera to give a personalised message to you, a visitor to his blog, about not wasting your life and making the wrong choices as he had. He had all the time in the world to do this as the ‘police’ sirens get closer and closer; yes, it made perfect sense.
I will stay away from spoilers later on I promise, but we’re currently talking about episode one of season one. During our time based with the production, we were permitted to see early cuts of the next couple of episodes and read scripts for the entire season one.
This enabled us to write the blog entries from Walt that sat alongside the video in which he dispenses his webcam lecture. All scripts and blog content were signed off and had input by the show’s creator Vince Gilligan along with Bryan, and you could tell at this early stage that the whole production felt strongly that the devil was in the details. Everyone cared a lot about every aspect.
The entire crew oozed the attitude that they were working on something special and this made them all the more keen to help the Brits that had come out to take over their crew, set and lead actor for a day. Bryan also needed a wig as they had just finished season one (which was cut short due to the writers strike of 2007) and he had shaved his head by this point. They were so accommodating and so appreciative of us being there that we didn’t feel the need to point out we hadn’t previously directed or written anything with a budget of over £8,000. Luckily they all knew what they were doing, and Bryan already knew Walt inside-out so we got great footage.
WaltsWisdom.com did very well, with over 150,000 people watching their personalised message within the first month which led up to the show’s premiere, which 1.2 million people tuned in to watch on AMC. At this point Twitter hadn’t been born and Facebook wasn’t in the mainstream just yet, so people simply passed it around on email.
During pre-production for season two in 2008, Sony Pictures Television asked us to think about what we could do to promote it. We were more than happy to oblige and get another trip to ABQ, not only for the chance to work with the show’s team again, but to have breakfast burritos (Christmas Style) at the Gold Street Cafe. The brief asked for a similar video experience but asked us to push the technology even further; our creative process however started with the narrative. We knew from reading season two scripts that Walt had changed as a person and we wanted to reflect this in our treatment, so we came up with ‘The Wrath Of Walt’.
What a shit name, right? Thankfully, quite late on in the project, we changed it to the more memorable and succinct WaltsWarning.com. The concept, however, didn’t change. In it, ‘you’ have been wandering around the desert and stumbled upon the RV. Walt spots you and is running after you, and once you’ve logged in with your Facebook account you trip over and Walt catches up to you. Just like real life.
We knew that Bryan was amazing at what he does and we wanted to let his performance as Walt shine and not have viewers distracted by technology. So the video is not a pretend webcam experience but a full screen video with Walter White right there, in your face, threatening you in order to keep you quiet.
We didn’t shy away from cutting edge technology, we just wanted to integrate it seamlessly into the narrative; you can look left or right as you are being threatened which will then define which of the five possible endings you get. Your name is spoken by Walt and written down (yes, we were fortunate to get two hours with Bryan to record 1,000 names, just don’t ever tell him that we had to re-record with a soundalike back in London) and your Facebook profile picture is set alight in front of you.
The shoot went well (except for Bryan being two hours late due to driving Walt’s car into a bollard during a shot) and WaltsWarning.com built on the success of WaltsWisdom.com with its Facebook integration and was viewed by over 250,000 people in the first month live. The show was also becoming known for producing quality digital marketing and utilising new platforms; along with the Ralph projects the production had also created five “minisodes” which were broadcast on the AMC Breaking Bad website. The cult of the show was building and yet seemed to be focused online. It lacked what Twitter has become to spread the word and AMC were revelling in the broadcast success of Mad Men.
During our time on set we managed to film some behind-the-scenes interviews with Bryan and Vince; both so eager to get teasers into the content we were creating with them. They, along with everyone else on the production, were still enthusiastic as ever and knew they were making amazing TV; it just hadn’t taken off yet. Emmy nominations and wins helped to validate what they, and we, believed.
During seasons three and four we created a couple of executions that generated increased traffic reflecting the growing fan base the show was getting. One allowed you to upload your face and watch yourself receiving the same fate as a key character. The other taught us that we don’t necessarily need to create large scale interactive videos to generate enormous success, with the rising popularity of Twitter and Facebook small, simple executions can spread far and wide. For example by tapping Hector’s Bell (tiosbell. com) one hundred times on a mobile optimised site, fans got a sneak preview at season five and could then share this reward on social networks.
For the second half of season five, Sony and AMC commissioned us to create something to leap-frog off the increased social network chatter that had built around the show (11 million people discussed the show on Facebook across season five, excluding the finale). We created the Breaking Bad Name Lab which lets fans transform their name into the show’s iconic, periodic table logo to be shared or used as their Facebook or Twitter profile picture.
The app has struck a chord with the fans as it allows them to express their love for the show in a short hand way whilst discussing it across their social networks. There have been approximately 4.1 million interactions by almost 800,000 people, reflecting not only the increased exposure of the show (the final episode was watched by 10.3 million viewers on AMC) but the type of audience that are viewing it (the finale produced 1.2 million tweets and 5.5 million Facebook updates and comments whist on-air). Netflix and iTunes were the perfect platforms for it to debut in the UK as so many viewers are now consuming their content through on-demand platforms rather than traditional broadcast schedules.
500,000 illegal downloads of the finale overnight is a sad reality of an audience as digitally savvy as this, but hopefully that won’t deter the talented group of people who knew the show they were making would eventually build into the huge success it has deservedly become.
Netflix is currently running a TV ad for all five seasons and it’s seriously making me want to see it all over again. If you haven’t seen it yet I recommend grabbing a Netflix account and watching it immediately. I couldn’t have said that 10 years ago. The way we are consuming and discussing TV has changed, and based on the quality of the shows being created this can only be a good thing.